Monday, June 12, 2006

Reading Sherlock Holmes for the first time: Discovering the icon of human reason

I find it fascinating that simple creations of the human imagination can become such ubiquitous features of a culture. Very few people of my generation have actually read any of the classic Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but virtually all of us know who he is and the major features of his character. That's an amazing achievement most writers spend a lifetime failing to achieve.

I recently finished reading the very first story in which the eminent Holmes appears, A Study in Scarlet. Aside from being a simply excellent story and an enjoyable read, we meet Holmes for the first time and are introduced to his peculiar talents and formidable command of both observation and deduction. Holmes, in these passages, reveals himself to be an icon on nineteenth century thought, that is, a celebration of human reason and a symbol of what the human mind might be able to accomplish through discipline and study. At one point, Watson remarks on his studious command of certain branches of science, and his total neglect of other pursuits.

His ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge. Of contemporary literature, philosophy and politics he appeared to know next to nothing. Upon my quoting Thomas Carlyle, he inquired in the naivest way who he might be and what he had done. My surprise reached a climax, however, when I found incidentally that he was ignorant of the Copernican Theory and of the composition of the Solar System. That any civilized human being in this nineteenth century should not be aware that the earth travelled round the sun appeared to me to be such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it.

"You appear to be astonished," he said, smiling at my expression of surprise. "Now that I do know it I shall do my best to forget it."

"To forget it!"

"You see," he explained, "I consider that a man's brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skilful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones."

"But the Solar System!" I protested.

"What the deuce is it to me?" He interrupted impatiently: "you say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work."

...He said that he would acquire no knowledge which did not bear upon his object. Therefore all the knowledge which he possessed was such as would be useful to him.

Such an interesting and iconic figure Holmes makes, with single-minded pursuit of the work of criminology. And how symbolic of the times in which his character was celebrated: to have the contents of one's mind supremely at the fingertips, to carefully manage one's intake of knowledge so that all one knows is subject to one's own control, and therefore can be brought systematically to bear against the subjects of one's choosing. What mastery of the human intellect! What a celebration of the faculties of reason! What problem that man faces can long stand against the due application of logic?

When I read Holmes, I can't help but think of more modern experiments with the concept, such as Spock from Star Trek--logic rules his faculties as well, and he cuts a superhuman figure because of it. How interesting, men who function like machines. Wasn't that Freud's project too, to map the inner recesses of the human mind and thus lay its technology bare for the use of the modern project?

How utterly unlike reality and how woefully diminished an image of the human creature. Part of me loves Holmes for the alien creature he represents, but part of me recoils from his cold logic and his inability to embrace the unknowability at the horizons of our world. What a dry and cold life such a creature must lead.

And for all the talk about postmodern abandonment of such thinking, I find myself wondering. True, reason is no longer a privileged way of knowing, often pushed behind other methods such as intuition and emotional appeal. But when I look at our fascination with technology and our incessant pursuit of control over every aspect of nature, subjecting every experience to digitization and storage on the hard drive, I wonder how much Holmes is a still-current symbol of our desire for mastery and control.

Ah, to embrace the mystery of our world, our own limited capacities, and to surrender ourselves to the One who dwells in the unknowable beyond our experience or reason. To be a Christian: that is the truly human pursuit.


Alien Shaman said...

Great write-up, I have wanted to pick up Holmes, but never gotten around to it. The passage definately wet my appetite.

Rizzle said...

On a long drive to California I listend to two of his short stories on CD. It was very enjoyable and I'm looking forward to reading more. I'm currently working my way through a pile of classic litterature. I just finished some Poe, Hemmingway, and the Great Gatsby. But my next book has not yet been identified. Maybe Holmes. We'll see I guess.